I know it’s a very thin line, but he crossed it

One of the effects of constantly interacting with other people’s work, is that you gain a sense for where a line of argument is about to go once it starts. Usually this happens because of two related reasons: 1) familiarity in a particular field of study gives you an understanding of the “consensus” views/arguments on a given subject, and 2) when certain names, terms or watch-words are dropped into the discussion, you simply know how such things are ordinarily used. Thus, the second is the result of the first. I am certainly not as gifted in this regard as many others I know (my supervisors, for example), and I candidly admit that I am occasionally wrong–a consequence of not being as gifted, I guess. However, in some respects I think I am getting better. Slowly.

This morning I listened to the first lecture of a course on hermeneutics given by a professor whom we will call, “Bob.” I was delighted to hear Bob’s decision to begin with the letters of Paul, since, technically speaking, they were the first works of the NT to be written.* My delight rests in the acknowledgement that, if we want to study the NT historically then Paul’s letters are first on the agenda. (However, if want to study the NT theologically then the present, canonical order is the best. Another discussion for another time). Sadly, though, my delight in Bob’s approach began to wane for two reasons.

First, Bob started with the letter to the Romans. I am not suggesting that Romans is a bad letter; I happen to like Romans very much. What bothered me was the apparent inconsistency in Bob’s overall approach. Step 1: when studying the NT, start with Paul’s letters. No problem; they are historically first, so that would make sense. Step 2: when studying Paul’s letters, start with the one to the Romans. Quoi?! Why use a historical criterion to determine which texts to begin with and then chuck that criterion once the determination is made? To quote from a great movie: “That don’t make no sense!” However, and despite this, I knew why Bob wanted to start with Romans.

Second, Bob launched in a series of questions on specific topics, all of which have become rather familiar to me. Thus, I knew where he was about to go and why. The line of argument ran something like this: Paul wrote a bunch of letters; literacy rates in the ancient world were exceptionally low (it was at this point I though/knew: “Oh crap, he’s about to rope in the rhetorical stuff”); since literacy rates were low, and since Paul wrote letters, the natural conclusion is that they were meant to be heard; since Paul’s letters were meant to be heard, they function more like speeches (“…here it comes…”); ergo, we can/should study Paul’s letters as comparable–if not synonymous with–ancient rhetorical speeches (“ding, ding, ding!”).

However, in laying out this line of argument Bob said something that completely surprised me. He said: “So some people use a wonderful ancient discipline called, ‘Rhetorical Criticism’ to see how in these letters they are put together rhetorically–that is, in terms of putting together an argument” (emphasis added). I had to back up the recording and hear it again just to make sure I heard it right the first time. I did. Bob called “Rhetorical Criticism” an “ancient discipline.” Why, Bob why?

While studies/training in the art of rhetoric are quite ancient, Rhetorical Criticism is not. In fact, Rhetorical Criticism, as a discipline, is fairly recent–specifically, post 1969 (i.e. post-James Muilenburg’s SBL speech).**  To come at this from another direction: the ancients used theories to educate people (before the fact) in how to deliver public speeches that would be persuasive; modern scholars use models of interpretation to study the historical circumstances of those speeches and their persuasiveness (after the fact). The one is not the other; the two are quite distinct and should not be confused.

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* Caveat: I allow for the possibility that the epistle from James (if written by Jesus’ brother) predates the writings of Paul by one to two years. The basic argument here is: James presided over the Jerusalem Council in 49 CE; the letter of James says nothing about the Council (namely its substance and outcome); ergo, the letter predates the Council. However, I tend to read James–at least the latter portion of chapter 2–as responding to an immature understanding of Paul’s teaching on justification. Since Paul only did one missionary tour prior to the Council, and since the general substance of Paul’s message remained the same; we can assume that it would take time for word of this immature understanding to reach James and thus require a response. Thus, this report would either be related to Paul’s first missionary tour or at least the second, which occurs after the Council.
** I admit that both Judah Messer Leon and Desiderius Erasmus conducted what could be classified as “rhetorical criticism”; however, their approach was distinct from how post-1969 Rhetorical Criticism is (typically) done.

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